If you listened to the radio in 1994, you probably heard What Would You Say by the Dave Matthews Band countless times. This track vaulted Dave Matthews to international fame with its groovy melodies and quirky lyrics.
But was Dave Matthews the genius behind the song? Or was it Blues Traveler frontman John Popper?
We’re digging into the history of this famous 90s hit.
Who Originally Wrote What Would You Say?
Dave Matthews is the creative genius behind What Would You say.
He was born on January 9, 1967, in Johannesburg, South Africa, and spent his youth between his home country, the UK, and the US. He taught himself guitar at age nine and was always interested in music.
It wasn’t until his 20s that Matthews started performing in public. After moving to Charlottesville, Virginia, he began playing guitar with local star Tim Reynolds’s band. This inspired him to form his own group, and Dave Matthews Band was formed in 1991.
The group’s first show was a charity benefit in March 1991. Soon they started small tours, playing at frat houses and in college towns. Connecting to a young audience helped drive their popularity. Their first full-length album, Under the Table and Dreaming, came out in 1994.
Dave Matthews Band has enjoyed lots of success. In fact, their breakthrough album went platinum six times! Their song So Much to Say won a Grammy in 1996. By 2018, they’d sold more than 38 million CDs and DVDs and over 25 million concert tickets.
Where Did Dave Matthews Find Inspiration for What Would You Say?
Dave Matthews wrote What Would You Say for the band’s first album. It was released as the lead single for Under the Table and Dreaming. The song eventually reached number nine on the Mainstream Top 40 chart.
Matthews described the song’s lyrics as “nonsensical.” The song’s intended emphasis was on the instrumental side. The track is musically complex, featuring guitar, saxophones, flute, harmonica, and extra percussion. While recording their album, producer Steve Lillywhite knew it would make the best single.
Matthews says the band’s approach to recording the song was “very humorous.” They hoped to transfer the song’s strangeness to the music video. David Hogan, the video’s director, described the video as an homage to pop art imagery from the 1960s.
Who Played Harmonica on What Would You Say?
John Popper is responsible for the fantastic harmonica solo on What Would You Say. Popper was born in Chardon, Ohio, on March 29, 1967. As a child, he studied piano, guitar, and cello, none of which appealed to him. He started playing harmonica in high school, even convincing the school band teacher to let him join.
Popper founded Blues Traveler around this time. The band released their first album in 1990 and gained notoriety after playing The Late Show in 1991. Despite health issues and personal tragedies, the harmonica player and his band remained popular through the 1990s.
Harmonica manufacturer Hohner lists Popper as one of their featured artists. In addition to harmonica, he also plays a 12-string guitar. Popper uses a specialty microphone that allows him to change the sound of his harmonica. He was inspired to use effects after studying Jimi Hendrix’s use of guitar pedals.
What is Dave Matthews Doing Now?
After dating for eight years, Dave Matthews married his wife, Ashley Harper, in 2000. The couple lives in the Wallingford neighborhood in Seattle with their three children. Their twins Stella and Grace were born in 2001, while their son Oliver was born in 2007.
Matthews also owns land near Charlottesville, Virginia. He purchased an old farm in 1999 which operates today as Blenheim Vineyards. Matthews sometimes designs the labels for their special edition wines. Another of the musician’s side businesses includes Haunted Hollow, a recording studio close to Charlottesville. The studio underwent 14 months of renovation and design before becoming operational.
But Dave Matthews Band is still the musician’s main project. The group continues to tour and play sold-out shows across the world. They completed a tour in 2022 and are scheduled to perform at a festival in early 2023. Although many founding band members have departed, Matthews still plays alongside his original drummer and bassist.
Where Is John Popper Today?
John Popper married Jordan Auleb in 2015. Their daughter, Eloise Anne, was born that year. Popper and Auleb divorced a few years later in 2018. He’s lived in several locations throughout the US, including New Orleans, rural Pennsylvania, and Snohomish, Washington.
Over the years, Popper has participated in multiple side projects. One includes the John Popper Project, a jazz and hip-hop fusion band that still performs occasionally. He started an Americana group called John Popper and the Duskray Troubadours in 2011. They released a self-titled album that year.
But like Dave Matthews, Popper’s main project is still his original band. Blues Traveler wrapped up their 35th-anniversary tour in late 2022. Earlier in the year, they toured with fellow 90s acts Train and Jewel. Their 2021 album Traveler’s Blues received a Grammy nomination.
An Unforgettable Collaboration
While Blues Traveler didn’t write a song for the Dave Matthews Band, they certainly helped raise their profile. What Would You Say was a vital part of launching the band to fame. The song might not have been a smash hit without John Popper’s iconic harmonica solo.
John Popper and his harmonicas have guest played with DMB multiple times since then. And we hope to see more collaboration in the future!
Do you have a favorite Dave Matthews track? Or a favorite Blues Traveler song? Let us know in the comments!